Greetings, humans. It is I, a fellow human and certainly not a trench coat full of cats posing as human. I would like to tell you how to show personality in your writing so other cats—I mean, humans, like me—will enjoy reading it.
All cats aside, it’s surprisingly easy for marketers to forget that we are writing for people. We write for a persona, a target audience, an industry. When was the last time an industry sat down and read a blog post over their corn flakes? By trying to write for everyone, we can end up writing for no one.
As bestselling author, marketer, and my spirit animal Ann Handley says, “Even when you are marketing to your entire audience or customer base, you are still simply speaking to a single human at any given time. Worry less about sounding professional, worry more about creating remarkable content that other humans can relate to.”
As content marketers we get paid to write. How cool is that? Moreover, we get paid specifically to write engaging content that has value. We’re not writing stereo instructions here. We’re building tiny cathedrals of knowledge inside people’s heads. Let’s inspire them. Let’s create extraordinary work.
That said, how far you push the following five tips depends on your audience and your brand. My advice is to go a little bit further than you think you can get away with. It’s always easier to tone it down than tone it up.
Here are five ways to make your content marketing sound more human:
#1 – Avoid Awkward Constructions
If you came of age in the 1990s or earlier, odds are you were scarred by your composition classes. From grade school through high school, we learned some of the most stilted writing known to man. But good news! In the words of another shrewd marketer (Alice Cooper), “School’s out forever.” Now you can get rid of the weird rules that make writing sound robotic. You have my permission to do the following:
- End sentences with prepositions. It’s not a real rule. It never was a real rule. It’s an ill-advised attempt to impose Latin grammar on English. It leads to stilted sentences up with which I shall not put.
- Use the singular ‘they.’ English doesn’t have a good gender-neutral singular pronoun. ‘They’ is a sufficient substitute, loads better than “Everyone will use his or her brains to come to his or her best conclusion.” If it’s good enough for the Washington Post, it’s good enough for all of us.
- Start sentences with conjunctions. My high school teachers hated it when I used ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘because’ to start sentences. But it’s frequently the best way to string two sentences together. And if you do it properly, you can avoid run-on sentences. Because without sentence breaks, your reader will check out.
- Use sentence fragments. You’re in charge now, and it’s your job to guide the reader how you see fit. Don’t worry about making every sentence have a subject and a verb. I think one-word sentences can be so. Very. Compelling.
#2 – Ditch Clichés
As the saying goes, “Avoid clichés like the plague. They’re old hat.” The problem with clichés is they’re not your words. They are third-hand phrases that have been passed around so long they’re drained of meaning. A computer (or a trench coat full of cats) could assemble them into sentences.
At best, a reader sees clichés as empty words that are safe to skip: “From time immemorial,” “For all intents and purposes,” “Home is where the heart is.” If you find yourself using clichés in your writing, take the opportunity to say something new.
By the way, buzzwords are a special kind of cliché: They’re both new and worn out at the same time. Don’t tempt your reader to play buzzword bingo.
#3 – Change up the Structure
Sometimes you can write completely naturally, but end up sounding awkward. Even though everything is technically correct, something seems off. You can reread and reread, but you just can’t put your finger on it. You wonder why this paragraph is setting your teeth on edge, and the tension just keeps building.
The previous paragraph makes people tense because every sentence has the same structure. Clause, comma, clause: It gets maddening really quickly. Make sure your writing doesn’t fall into a sing-song rhythm. Break it up. (See, isn’t that better?)
#4 – Take a Point of View
The previous tips are text-level edits, but this one is more holistic. Too often we confuse professionalism with detachment.
Maybe we don’t want to sound pushy or aggressive. Maybe we’re trying to be “balanced.” Whatever the reason, we hide behind, “Some people say,” or “For many people,” or “It’s possible that you might…”
To really connect with your reader, be bold. You are writing to them for a reason. You know what you’re talking about. If you truly believe your advice is worth their time, embrace your writerly authority.
#5 – Learn the Rules (So You Can Break Them)
The overarching reason great writing has personality is it breaks the rules. Think J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison. You could never mistake one’s writing for the other, and it’s all because they break the rules in their own specific ways.
But before you start breaking the rules, you have to know them first. Read The Elements of Style and the Little, Brown Handbook. Understand the what and why of each rule, so you know exactly what you’re doing when you break them. Get a firm foundation in the fundamentals. Then you can go a little bit crazy on them. That’s how to develop a personal (or a brand) style.
Content Marketing: By Humans, for Humans
Unless you actually are a trench coat full of cats (in which case, congratulations on keeping up the deception, and you should know it’s impossible to catch the laser pointer dot), you can add personality to your content. Part of the process is unlearning bad habits from high school. Part is believing you have something important to say, and trusting that you know the best way to say it. And part is getting out of your own way, writing garbage, and refining it.
So go forth and create awesome stuff. I’ll be over here with my catnip mouse.
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